Durant 1926: The Philosophy of the Spirit (Croce)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 2.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. BENEDETTO CROCE

2. The Philosophy of the Spirit

His first book, in its original form, was a leisurely series of articles (1895-1900) on Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx. He had been immensely stimulated by Antonio Labriola, his professor at the University of Rome; under his guidance Croce had plunged into the labyrinths of Marx’s Kapital. “This intercourse with the literature of Marxism, and the eagerness with which for some time I followed the socialistic press of Germany and Italy, stirred my whole being, and for the first time awakened in me a feeling of political enthusiasm, yielding a strange taste of newness to me; I was like a man who, having fallen in love for the first time when no longer young, should observe in himself the mysterious process of the new passion.” But the wine of social reform did not quite go to his head; he soon reconciled himself to the political absurdities of mankind, and, worshipped again at the altar of philosophy.

Croce was inspired by the literature of Marxism. But the wine of social reform did not quite go to his head; he soon reconciled himself to the political absurdities of mankind, and, worshipped again at the altar of philosophy.

One result of this adventure was his elevation of the concept Utility to a parity with Goodness, Beauty and Truth. Not that he conceded to economic affairs the supreme importance given to them in the system of Marx and Engels. He praised these men for a theory which, however incomplete, had drawn attention to a world of data before underrated and almost ignored; but he rejected the absolutism of the economic interpretation of history, as an unbalanced surrender to the suggestions of an industrial environment. He refused to admit materialism as a philosophy for adults or even as a method for science; mind was to him the primary and ultimate reality. And when he came to write his system of thought he called it, almost pugnaciously, “The Philosophy of the Spirit.”

One result of this adventure was his elevation of the concept Utility to a parity with Goodness, Beauty and Truth. But he refused to admit materialism as a philosophy for adults or even as a method for science; mind was to him the primary and ultimate reality.

For Croce is an idealist, and recognizes no philosophy since Hegel’s. All reality is idea; we know nothing except in the form it takes in our sensations and our thoughts. Hence all philosophy is reducible to logic; and truth is a perfect relationship in our ideas. Perhaps Croce likes this conclusion a bit too well; he is nothing if not logical; even in his book on Esthetics he cannot resist the temptation to intrude a chapter on logic. It is true that he calls philosophy the study of the concrete universal, and science the study of the abstract universal; but it is the reader’s misfortune that Croce’s concrete universal is universally abstract. He is, after all, a product of the scholastic tradition; he delights in abstruse distinctions and classifications that exhaust both the subject and the reader; he slides easily into logical casuistry, and refutes more readily than he can conclude. He is a Germanized Italian, as Nietzsche is an ltalianized German.

For Croce, all reality is idea; we know nothing except in the form it takes in our sensations and our thoughts. Hence all philosophy is reducible to logic; and truth is a perfect relationship in our ideas.

Nothing could be more German, or more Hegelian, than the title of the first of the trilogy that makes up the Filosofia dello Spirito—the Logic as the Science of the Pure Concept (1905). Croce wants every idea to be as pure as possible—which seems to mean as ideological as possible, as abstract and unpragmatic as possible; there is nothing here of that passion for clarity and practical content which made William James a beacon-light amid the mists of philosophy. Croce does not care to define an idea by reducing it to its practical consequences; he prefers to reduce practical affairs to ideas, relations, and categories. If all abstract or technical words were removed from his books they would not so suffer from obesity.

Croce wants every idea to be as pure as possible. There is no desire for clarity and practical content. He prefers to reduce practical affairs to ideas, relations, and categories.

By a “pure concept” Croce means a universal concept, like quantity, quality, evolution, or any thought which may conceivably be applied to all reality. He proceeds to juggle these concepts as if the spirit of Hegel had found in him another avatar, and as if he were resolved to rival the reputation of the master for obscurity. By calling all this “logic,” Croce convinces himself that he scorns metaphysics, and that he has kept himself immaculate from it; metaphysics, he thinks, is an echo of theology, and the modern university professor of philosophy is just the latest form of the medieval theologian. He mixes his idealism with a certain hardness of attitude towards tender beliefs: he rejects religion; he believes in the freedom of the will, but not in the immortality of the soul; the worship of beauty and the life of culture are to him a substitute for religion. “Their religion was the whole intellectual patrimony of primitive peoples; our intellectual patrimony is our religion. … We do not know what use could be made of religion by those who wish to preserve it side by side with the theoretic activity of man, with his art, his criticism, and his philosophy. … Philosophy removes from religion all reason for existing. … As the science of the spirit, it looks upon religion as a phenomenon, a transitory historical fact, a psychic condition that can be surpassed.” One wonders if La Gioconda’s smile did not hover over the face of Rome when it read these words.

By a “pure concept” Croce means a universal concept, like quantity, quality, evolution, or any thought which may conceivably be applied to all reality. He calls all this logic and he scorns metaphysics. He substitutes religion by the worship of beauty and the life of culture.

We have here the unusual occurrence of a philosophy that is at once naturalistic and spiritualistic, agnostic and indeterministic, practical and idealistic, economic and esthetic. It is true that Croce’s interest is caught more surely by the theoretical than by the pragmatic aspects of life; but the very subjects he has essayed bear witness to an honorable effort to overcome his scholastic inclinations. He has written an immense volume on The Philosophy of the Practical, which turns out to be in part another logic under another name, and in part a metaphysical discussion of the old problem of free will. And in a more modest tome On History he has achieved the fruitful conception of history as philosophy in motion, and of the historian as one who shows nature and man not in theory and abstraction but in the actual flow and operation of causes and events. Croce loves his Vico, and warmly seconds the earlier Italian’s plea that history should be written by philosophers. He believes that the fetish of a perfectly scientific history has led to a microscopic erudition in which the historian loses the truth because he knows too much. Just as Schliemann exhumed not only one Troy but seven after scientific historians had shown that there had been no Troy at all, so Croce thinks the hypercritical historian exaggerates our ignorance of the past.

I recollect the remark made to me when I was occupied with research work in my young days, by a friend of but slight literary knowledge, to whom I had lent a very critical, indeed hypercritical, history of ancient Rome. When he had finished reading it he returned the book to me, remarking that he had acquired the proud conviction of being ‘the most learned of philologists’: for the latter arrive at the conclusion that they know nothing, as the result of exhausting toil; while he knew nothing without any effort at all, simply as a generous gift of nature.

We have here the unusual occurrence of a philosophy that is at once naturalistic and spiritualistic, agnostic and indeterministic, practical and idealistic, economic and esthetic. Croce thinks the hypercritical historian exaggerates our ignorance of the past.

Croce recognizes the difficulty of finding out the actual past, and quotes Rousseau’s definition of history as “the art of choosing, from among many lies, that one which most resembles the truth.” He has no sympathy with the theorist who, like Hegel, or Marx, or Buckle, distorts the past into a syllogism that will conclude with his prejudice. There is no foreordained plan in history; and the philosopher who writes history must devote himself not to the tracing of cosmic designs, but to the revelation of causes and consequences and correlations. And he will also remember that only that part of the past is of value which is contemporary in its significance and its illumination. History might at last be what Napoleon called it,—“the only true philosophy and the only true psychology”—if historians would write it as the apocalypse of nature and the mirror of man.

Croce recognizes the difficulty of finding out the actual past. He has no sympathy with the theorist who distorts the past into a syllogism that will conclude with his prejudice. The philosopher who writes history must devote himself to the revelation of causes and consequences and correlations.

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